MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA -  SEPTEMBER 30: Muslim pilgrims from all around the world circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, ahead of upcoming Eid Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) at Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on September 30, 2014. (Photo by Dilek Mermer/ Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud And Sponsored Prayers For Nigeria

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Sometime in July I was informed by the Saudi Arabia cultural office that I would be  performing Hajj this year as a guest of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Madina. Like many other people on the programme my name had been forwarded to the Kingdom by a highly respected mutual friend. We subsequently had a meeting with the ambassador. He reminded us that we were first and foremost guests of Allah (SWA) before being guests of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Alsaud and that this was a golden opportunity for us to pray for our nation to overcome its challenges.

He urged us to also pray for our families and for global peace. Of course, one was very curious. Were we going to have special prayer sessions and clerics from which denomination would lead the prayers? What aspect of the pilgrimage would be sponsored and what aspect of it would we have to fund? I kept asking our contact person this question and he kept telling me “everything has been taken care of.” I found it difficult to believe that, knowing that Hajj is an expensive but fulfilling engagement.

On Saturday, September 3, 2016, I met my co-travellers at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. The embassy had chosen Sheikh Muhammed Kabir Gombe as our team leader. At Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, I met other Jeddah bound pilgrims wearing the kind of tag those of us from Nigeria had on. We were to be on the same flight. Thirty Nigerians were expected in Saudi Arabia as the King’s guests but we were less than this number in Addis Ababa.  The feeling that we were not alone on the voyage gave me some comfort.

Immediately we arrived at the airport in Jeddah we were respectfully guided into a hall where all formalities, including filling out our immigration forms were carried out. The three gentlemen who received us wore welcoming smiles throughout. To every request we made their response was “no problem” in highly accented English.  There was an endless supply of bottled water to quench our thirst. If you have ever travelled to Saudi Arabia, you will appreciate the value of water in the parched desert environment better.

The harassing heat outside the airport terminal was quickly quenched by the welcoming cool air from the air conditioned 2016 Yutong VIP luxury buses provided for us. The quality of the buses was another relief. They were new and smelt it, spacious and the Bus Boys were Saudi-Nigerians.  We were told these buses would take us on all commutes while in the holy land. Comforting as this was I asked myself how much we would have to pay in riyals or dollars. I was later to learn that thirty two of such buses were provided for a whopping 2400 guests of the King. The number hit me like fast moving shards of glass. The implication of mistakes and miscalculations regarding logistics, planning and accommodation for the number of pilgrims the King had decided to host worried me. The king had given us an Ihram, a copy of the holy Qur’an, hand and baggage tags and a pair of pilgrims’ slip-ons gratis. We drove on to Mecca,  already in our Ihram and chanting the Labayk.

I had thought our accommodation would be rough and rugged since over two thousand people were on the programme. To my surprise we were checked into the Casablanca Takamul, Mecca. A five star hotel.At the entrance we were welcomed by a loud name call of Nigeria and served scented holy zamzam water in brass hand bowls from a colourful pitcher by young men with wide smiles, dressed in traditional Arabian ceremonial outfit. As we took the water we were assembled for a group photograph. The video cameras were also there. Everyone we met was smiling at us and seemed very happy to receive us. We were given our room keys and paired five people to a room.  While some felt it would be a case of overcrowding and loss of private space especially since the larger percentage of the people on our team were VIPs our hosts told us that it was necessary to bring us together so that bonds of  brotherhood would be cemented. This, to them would not be achieved if we were in separate lodgings. It made sense. On every bed was a small bag which had all the things we would need at Arafat, Mina and for other activities. Laundry was also on the house though everyone was restricted to two pairs per day. There was a clinic in every location where the King’s guests were and medical care for big and small ailments was gratis.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were buffets. Water, regular and exotic teas and coffee, biscuits and  snacks, dates, fruits, soups, sauces, bread varieties, deserts and toppings were provided in excess of our needs at no charge to us. We were served like kings!  The selection was commendable considering that if they were to serve staples like pounded yam, fufu and other Nigeria food there would be chaos since there were palates from about 52 countries in the hotel. Of course a few of us complained about the pepperlessness of the food. But there was chili on the table.

Bus rides to the Holy Mosque in Mecca was were twice a day. The first one enabled the king’s guests meet the early morning prayer and remain in the Haram for religious activities while the other was towards evening time in order for the guests to conclude their worship for the day. But for one, the drivers were generally very well behaved. Not used to that level of hospitality I still expected a surprise by way of request of payment for a service rendered.

Days rolled into one week and we did not received an invoice for the tea or water we took from the refrigerator in our rooms. We were not billed for the toileteries either. I was shocked to learn that the King’s guests programme was started in 1996 and with our batch 24,000 pilgrims had been hosted on the all expense paid Hajj trip. There was also an Umrah programme. The organisers asked for nothing except that we should return home and bond better as Muslims. Before we left for home stronger bonds had of course been established.  Today, I can proudly count several – actually a college of professors, a former junior minister, lecturers in higher institutions of learning in Nigeria and businessmen and media professionals, very senior military officers and lawyers as new friends I made. I have also made friends from other countries, though based on personal effort. I will however remember two particular acts of kindness by the King.

One of us from Nigeria, Bashir Danango Abubakar came into Saudi Arabia with an infected leg after his flights were delayed. The king ordered that he should be attended to by the best doctors. In fact he never stayed in the hotel with us. He was taken to the hospital on arrival. Round the clock he was given proper medical attention. Two surgeries were performed on his leg and to ensure his trip was not wasted, he was taken to Arafat by the King’s staff.  Other Hajj rites were performed for him by members of our team. On the day we were to leave for Nigeria he was cleared by the King’s staff and given his boarding pass and a wheel chair. We met him at the boarding gate and took over from there. He arrived home with him safely. He had on him a referral note and said he enjoyed the best medical attention. Let me also add here that doctors were available round the clock to offer free medical services to the King’s guests.

If you have ever missed an international flight you would know how it feels to be told to pay afresh for the next available airline going your way or to be put on the next flight by the same airline. One of us missed his flight while trying to pay the charges for his excess luggage. The King arranged for a new flight path for him and ensured that he left with all his luggage. He did not pay any extra charges. We returned through Addis Ababa while he returned though Istanbul. He reunited with his family and did so in proper time. Another member of our team who lost his luggage in transit was reunited with it within a few days. The airline involved could not afford to lose the patronage of the king so ensured that the luggage rerouting was done expeditiously.

The 2016 King’s Hajj Guests from Nigeria is the largest so far. Twenty eight out of the thirty dignitaries invited honoured the invitation. Another seventeen people were sponsored through a different programme. Therefore forty four Nigerians were hosted by the king of Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj. This is obviously a fall out of the new relationship the two countries are forging. It is therefore important to highlight other areas the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which celebrated its 68th national day recently can help Nigeria.

– Balogun is an Abuja based media professional.

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